* Turkmenistan holds world's fourth-largest gas reserves
* Country has declared itself neutral in global affairs
* Ties with Azerbaijan icy over disputed Caspian resources
By Marat Gurt
DJAFAR, Turkmenistan, Sept 5 Neutral
Turkmenistan flexed its military muscle on Wednesday, holding
its first naval exercises in the Caspian Sea to show it can
rebuff any attack on the oil and gas riches it hopes to sell to
Turkmenistan, on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, holds
the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, according to BP
data, surpassed only by Russia, Iran and Qatar. The other four
littoral nations are Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Turkmenistan said this week it could potentially join
Azerbaijan in supplying natural gas into a pipeline through
Turkey to the EU border, helping Europe become less reliant on
Previously announced plans for such a pipeline have angered
Russia, which argues that every Caspian littoral state must
agree before such a project can go ahead. Turkmenistan and
Azerbaijan have said they need agreement only with each other.
But Turkmen-Azeri relations also soured this year when, in
June, Azerbaijan warned Turkmenistan to stop exploration at an
offshore oil and gas field. Disputes over how to divide the
Caspian Sea have dogged the development of its hydrocarbon
riches since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The military training exercise, codenamed Hazar-2012
(Caspian-2012), was held jointly by army and police units. Two
corvettes opened fire to defend an imitation village and a real
oil tanker anchored off the coast of western Turkmenistan.
Russian-built fighter jets flew overhead as special police
units rebuffed a mock attack by "armed saboteurs" on a dummy oil
refinery on the Caspian shore. An audience including President
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov responded with rapturous applause.
Turkmenistan, a mainly Muslim country of 5.5 million, was
granted official neutral status by the United Nations shortly
after the Soviet Union's collapse. The country describes its
military doctrine as "exclusively defensive".
Wearing a camouflage jacket, Berdymukhamedov, a 55-year-old
trained dentist, made no statement to the assembled crowd that
would suggest a potential threat to his gas-rich nation.
Berdymukhamedov enjoys absolute power in his desert nation,
where he goes by the state-approved nickname of Arkadag, or The
Patron. He won a second five-year term as president in February,
with 97 percent of the vote.
A programme for the event read: "We express our gratitude
(to Berdymukhamedov) for his help in strengthening the country's
defence capability, and ask the Almighty to give sound health
and a long life to the esteemed president of Turkmenistan."
Turkmenistan plans to build a naval base on the Caspian Sea,
equipped with a radar surveillance system, by 2015.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Robin Paxton and Jon